Friday, 22 March
Chiefs v Highlanders
5:35 PM AEDT, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
The last time the Chiefs hosted the Highlanders they lost so I expect them to be focused for this one. The two sides have already played each other this season, with the Chiefs prevailing 41-27 in a highly entertaining affair. Incredibly, the Chiefs are averaging 39 points per game, which is the best in the competition by almost ten points. The main concern for them, however, are points conceded. The Waikato side has conceded 60 points in their last two games. The Chiefs receive a personnel boost this week with centre Richard Kahui, scrum-half Brendon Leonard and fullback Robbie Robinson all available. The fact that these players didn’t travel to South Africa will help the squad, which will be a tad fatigued after their overseas tour.
With strong starts over the last two seasons and high profile acquisitions during the off-season, the Highlanders had high hopes for 2013 but remain the only winless side in the competition. Last week they were too slow at recycling possession which gave the Hurricanes ample time to organise their defence. The Highlanders also weren’t helped by the loss of Captain Andrew Hore in the opening minutes with replacement Brayden Mitchell breaking a collarbone. The double injury has forced them to bring in former discard Jason Rutledge to provide cover for their remaining hooker, Liam Coltman. The Highlanders have also brought in Neil Brew as cover for centre. In better news, All Black Ma’a Nonu is back from injury.
Betting: on paper the Chiefs should be too strong, however the Highlanders are capable of the occasional upset. Added to the mix is the fact that the Chiefs have to back up a week after playing two fixtures in South Africa. Given the attacking style of rugby of both teams I would back the overs if they’re anything short of 55. Keep an eye on the market for Highlanders winger Hosea Gear to score a try. He was brilliant last week.
Saturday, 23 March
Crusaders v Kings
5:35 PM AEDT, AMI Stadium (Addington),Christchurch
After a shaky start the Crusaders burst into life by thumping the Bulls 41-19 last week. Their fans will have concerns over the high error count, however the Crusaders have said they have no plans of backing away from their attacking style of play. In the second half they were able to click into gear for the first time as they eventually ran in six tries to one. The team will also be buoyed after seeing their forwards dominate the Bulls pack. This all bodes ominously for the Kings who weren’t able to keep up with the high scoring Chiefs last week. In player news, Zac Guildford has returned to the squad and will start from the bench while Luke Romano returns from injury.
The Kings never seriously threatened the Chiefs last week, however they have now covered the line in all three of their fixtures. They will be without captain Luke Watson as well as their stand-in captain Darron Nell for the four-game tour. In response to an international player rule breach they have withdrawn internationals Tomas Leonardi and Virgile Lacombe from the touring squad. They have yet to play on the road so it remains to be seen how much of their home form they can take with them.
Reds v Bulls
7:40 PM AEDT, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
The Reds will be hurting after their listless performance last week. They lost 12-19 at home to the Force after going scoreless in the second half. They were dominated at the breakdown and failed to hold onto possession for large periods of the game. They made too many errors and conceded too many penalties. Quade Cooper has been good with penalty kicking but is guilty of too many wayward passes. The Reds aren’t helped by fitness concerns over Liam Gill and Radike Samo due to knee injuries. In better news, captain James Horwill is expected to play after a 10-month absence with injury. He is one of five changes made to the starting line-up with James Hanson, Jarrad Butler, Digby Ioane and Anthony Faingaa in the starting XV.
It has been a mixed bag so far for the Bulls on their overseas tour. They upset the Blues in Round 4 before being comprehensively outplayed by the Crusaders a week later. Paul Willemse has been added to their squad in Brisbane as injury cover for lock Flip van der Merwe who is in doubt after picking up a knock last week. Their other lock on tour, Grant Hattingh, is also doubtful with a concussion. Their loss to the Crusaders has certainly taken its toll on the squad, with Wynand Olivier, Francois Hougaard and Akona Ndungane also out for this fixture. In all, the Bulls have made a whopping nine changes to the squad from last week. Morne Steyn has been dropped to the bench to give Louis Fouche his first start. In better news, Lionel Mapoe, Bjorn Basson and Dewald Potgieter are back from injury. Zane Kirchner and captain Pierre Spies are also back in the starting squad.
Betting: I find this fixture really hard to predict. Given the Bulls play with a lot of structure and with the Reds misfiring at the moment, I would be inclined to take the Bulls +6.0 at 1.94 odds (Pinnacle Sports)
Force v Cheetahs
9:45 PM AEDT, NIB Stadium, Perth
The Force are on a high after beating the Reds 19-12 in Brisbane last week. The win snapped a six-game losing streak spanning this season and last. They played with better accuracy than the Reds and showed more urgency on defence. Former All Black and Force scrum-half Alby Mathewson had a strong game, outshining the return of Will Genia for the Reds as the Force managed to capitalise on their opportunities.
The Cheetahs will be gunning for their third overseas victory on the trot after upsetting the Highlanders and Waratahs. They have suffered a major injury blow, however, with Johan Goosen picking up a training ground injury after last week’s clash. The luckless fly-half looks set to miss the rest of the season and perhaps the Rugby Championship as well. They will now have to rely on more strong performances from scrum-half Sarel Pretorius, who has been excellent this season. Ironically, the Cheetahs’ backup fly-half last season was Sias Ebersohn, who now plays with the Force. The depth the Cheetahs have at fly-half will now be severely tested.
Betting: this could go either way. Both teams come in on the back of upset wins and both will view this game as one they should win. I fear the Cheetahs may fade for their fourth game on tour, especially in light of losing playmaker Johan Goosen. I would tentatively back the Force in the head-to-head at 1.68 (Pinnacle Sports). Keep an eye on the market for Force winger Alfie Mafi to score a try. He has scored four in as many games this season.
Sunday, 24 March
Sharks v Rebels
2:05 AM AEDT, Kings Park, Durban
The Sharks will be looking to bounce back from their home defeat to the Brumbies last week. Sharks coach John Plumtree says his team was left “embarrassed and hurt” by their 29-10 loss, but the Sharks can take heart from the fact that they’re still in a good position. They are 3-1 for the season and have already recorded a win over the highly fancied Stormers. The game last week was lost in the first half, but the Sharks were marginally the better side in the second spell. They have made seven changes to the squad for this week, with some big names like Frans Steyn and Ryan Kankowsi dropped to the bench. Jannie du Plessis has also on the bench due to a minor knee injury. Hooker Bismarck du Plessis remains out with injury and is targeting an April return.
The Rebels will continue to lament the fact that rugby games consist of two halves after leading the Reds at the break in Round 4. Playing competitively before fading in the second half has become a recurring theme for the Melbourne side. They have been done a favour by the season’s schedule, wtih a bye prior to their South African tour to freshen up and iron a few things out. This will be a tough fixture for the Rebels and with the tired and Goosen-less Cheetahs hosting them after a four-game overseas tour next week, you could forgive the Rebels for having one eye on Round 7. The Rebels welcome back captain Gareth Delve as well as Cooper Vuna for this fixture. Keep an eye out for the promising New Zealand born winger Jason Woodward, who has been named in the run on side for his debut.
Betting: The Sharks are too short in the head-to-head market so I would take the Rebels +14.5 at 1.92 odds (Luxbet).
Stormers v Brumbies
4:10 AM AEDT, Newlands Stadium, Cape Town
After losing their first two away fixtures the Stormers returned home to beat a very good Chiefs side 36-34. They will be boosted by the returns of Juan de Jongh, Michael Rhodes and Jaco Taute, however they have lost winger Bryan Habana for ten weeks. They are also without Peter Grant for the next three to four weeks. The Stormers boast a formidable home record having gone undefeated at Newlands Stadium last season. Their home record will be severely tested this week.
The Brumbies have become the team to beat after their blistering 29-10 win in Durban last week. To the dismay of the home crowd they scored four tries in the opening half to take the game away from the Sharks. With a 4-0 record the Brumbies remain the only undefeated team in the competition. They make few mistakes and continue to defend well, boasting by far the best defensive record in the competition. The Brumbies’ South African coach Jake White is now receiving attention as a possible future Wallabies coach. White made five changes to the starting line up from the week before to tailor his squad to exploit the Sharks’ weaknesses. He knows the South African rugby sides inside and out and is well placed to inflict further misery on them this week.
Betting: I’m going for the Brumbies at 2.35 odds (Sportingbet/Centrebet) in the head-to-head as I feel they represent better value in this market than the Stormers. I rate Brumbies coach Jake White highly and back him to conjure up another unlikely road win. Those who wish to be a bit more cautious should consider the Brumbies +3.5 at the line.
Waratahs v Blues
4:05 PM AEDT, Allianz Stadium, Sydney
Against the Cheetahs the Waratahs did well to fight back from a poor start, but poor execution cost them in the end as they lost 26-27 last week. New coach Michael Cheika is trying to get them to play with ball in hand but old habits die hard as they continue to kick possession away. With just one win in their last twelve fixtures spanning this season and last, Waratahs fans haven’t had much to cheer about of late. Their woes have been compounded by the loss playmaker Berrick Barnes for six weeks with a thumb injury. By my reckoning Barnes has only been on the field for 17 minutes all season. The Waratahs are also expected to be without hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau and No.8 Wycliff Palu for this clash.
Blues fans will be scratching their heads at coach John Kirwan’s decision to make six rotational changes to the side that defeated the Hurricanes and Crusaders. They put on a lacklustre performance in their 21-28 home loss to the Bulls after Kirwan discarded previous solid combinations at prop, hooker, lock, five-eighth and wing. He also rejigged their back row formation. The lesson may be if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Those changes were made for the sake of rotation rather than to tailor the squad to their opponents like the Brumbies did. They have since had a week to stew over that loss and will be hungry to make amends against the Waratahs. The Blues have been boosted by the return of All Blacks lock Anthony Boric to the bench.